There’s an old adage about the adaptability of kids: They'll consume anything if you feed it to them early enough. They’ll chow down on kimchi without holding their noses, and tackle broccoli without any argument. They'll also acquire a language or two, or maybe learn to play an instrument if so coaxed. The learning curve, in other words, is softened for those with baby teeth.
My early adopted skill was less practical than most: I learned how to sleep perfectly still, my torso entombed in a shell.
From ages ten through 14, I was required to wear a back brace to sleep. Designed to correct the improper curve of my spine, which bowed drastically in the wrong direction, it was made of hard plastic and lined with dense foam. It had three foot-long Velcro straps that looped into buckles on the front. It looked a bit like the Venus de Milo, scooped of her innards, with the arm stump twisted toward the sky.
Since I couldn’t properly apply it myself, someone had to do it for me. My sister, then in high school, was usually tasked. Around 10:30 each night, I’d sheepishly knock on her door and ask her to buckle me in. Most of the time, she was on the phone with her then-boyfriend. I’ll call you back in five, she’d tell him, I’ve got to put my sister to bed.
I’d pull the brace over my head and wriggle it down my middle, settling into the grooves molded to my body. I’d lie flat on the mattress while she looped Velcro through metal, pulling the strap down over its underside. The brace had been made from a plaster cast of my torso. Objectively, it was a perfect fit.
I had a Charleston. Other scoliosis brace models include the Providence, the Boston and the Milwaukee. I had a vague supposition that my brace was so named because the location of the curvature on my back roughly matched up with the positioning of that southern city on the sloping eastern seaboard. I later found the brace was in fact invented in Charleston, South Carolina in 1978.
The Charleston's exaggerated shape, different than the corset-like straightness of other brace models, worked to bend my spine in the opposite direction of the curve. It encased my body and swooped it over to one side, taking my right arm with it. When I wore it, I looked like I was permanently performing the third part of the YMCA.
Once I was buckled in for the night, there was no exit. I tried not to drink too much water before bed and learned to have a very high tolerance for hard-to-reach itches. Sleeping position options were limited to back or stomach. It was difficult to alternate between the two, so I learned to choose wisely early in the night.
My mother bought me a few ultra-breathable undershirts from the doctor, but I didn’t like to wear them. They looked like enormous socks. Instead, I’d wear loose t-shirts; when I peeled off the brace in the morning, the skin underneath looked like the untwisted ends of a candy wrapper.
I’d usually wake up before my right arm did. It would writhe like an unheld hose, often hitting me in the face. As the arm tingled back to life, I’d rip off the brace and throw it on the floor, where it would settle with a jingle and hollow thump.
Dr. Altongy, my orthopedist, had prescribed the brace. Every six months when my mother and I went to see him, I’d tuck my brace under my seat in the waiting room, watching others trying to steal glances, smiling to myself smugly. Dr. Altongy’s office was in the kind of snobbish northern New Jersey town that produced a lot of children with lacrosse injuries. I sat there proudly with my plastic shell, an anomaly amongst the casts and crutches. This was no upper-class accident.
Every time I saw Dr. Altongy, he delivered the same Catskillian schtick about how the curve of my spine was like the curl of his hair. Your spine is perfectly natural, he’d say, pulling at some strands for emphasis. It’s genetic.
However lame the joke, he spoke the truth. My mother and her mother both have a slight curvature, but no one in my family ever required a brace. The only other brace I knew was strapped to the title character of a Judy Blume book, Deenie. Deenie had dreams of becoming a model, but they were sidelined when she was diagnosed with scoliosis. I was five-feet-tall and had braces — I couldn’t relate much to her catwalk dreams.
But I felt emboldened by the isolation. There were no role models to tell me how I should act or what I should do about my condition. It was the ultimate idiosyncrasy. I had a trait foreign to everyone in my small universe, and I cherished it. I think that’s why I was so diligent about wearing it. My brace became an extremity, a personality trait. I would refer to it as my Tupperware, my strait jacket, my mini-me. Nightly discomfort was better than losing my distinguishing feature. (And anything was better than the horror of corrective back surgery.)
Over the years, I developed my own schtick. I'd joke about my errant arm with friends at school. Whenever my sister and I shared a bed, I'd threaten to steamroll her. I anthropomorphized the brace, inventing stories about how it longed to leave the confines my bedroom.
A few times a year on family trips, or doctor’s visits, the brace did venture out. I liked the way it looked on a luggage cart or tossed in the trunk of the car. There was something charming about when it was disembodied, and out of its natural habitat. The arabesque bend of the arm imbued it with a sense of life. It looked as if, at any minute, it would take off.
And then one day, I didn't need a brace anymore. My hips locked, my height was determined and my spine was no longer malleable. I stopped wearing it just before high school where, coincidentally, I met another girl who'd worn a brace. Hers had a more svelte, translucent design. She called it a vest, not a brace. We wore them together for fun at sleepovers.
The two iterations of my night brace, along with the day brace I wore in eighth grade, now live in the back of a closet in my parent's house. I came across them a few years ago when looking for a suitcase. I stared at them, thought about the now reshaped part of me. I couldn't believe I'd ever been that small.